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“What is Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui up to?” That remains the burning question, following Lee’s apparent abandonment of the long-standing “one-China” policy that used to be the one important common denominator underwriting cross-strait relations and Sino-U.S. and Sino-Japanese relations regarding Taiwan. Lee has asserted that future cross-strait interaction should be based on the premise of “state-to-state” or at least “special state-to-state” relations: a pronouncement that drew a predictable, immediate, furious reaction from Beijing.

Frankly, I am not sure what motivated Lee to take such a stand at this time. His comments seemed more spontaneous than premeditated, but clearly reflect Taiwan’s growing frustration with Beijing’s attempts to force Taiwan to accept a politically inferior position going into cross-strait talks — which Lee finds politically untenable and personally insulting. While he probably sees his current rhetorical shift as only a modest and logical extension of his previous positions, the initial reaction — both in the world press and in Beijing — has helped create a crisislike atmosphere.

One problem, of course, is that everything Lee says draws an automatic negative reaction from Beijing, causing many people to interpret China’s most recent claim — that this is “an extremely dangerous step,” putting relations “at the brink of the precipice” — as just more empty posturing. This would be a serious mistake. Before this latest pronouncement, the Chinese were already seriously paranoid about Lee’s “split-ist” intentions and are interpreting this new stand as a frontal attack on Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s (to them) moderate Taiwan policy. The fact that it comes at a time when Sino-U.S. relations are at their worst in years increases China’s paranoia.

What Beijing appears less capable of understanding is how its earlier actions — including a steadfast refusal to give Lee any international breathing space — continue to drive the Taiwan president into taking positions that keep both sides on a collision course. If Beijing started believing its own propaganda — that Lee’s comments do not reflect the views of the people of Taiwan and represent “attempts by foreign forces to interfere in China’s reunification” — it will be even more difficult for this tense situation to be defused.

It appears highly unlikely that Lee’s comments were coordinated in advance with the “foreign force” that most readily comes to mind — the United States. In fact, Lee’s comments are likely to further strain already tense relations between Taipei and the Clinton administration, which, like Beijing, tends to see this as an attempt by Lee to capitalize both on strained Sino-U.S. ties and on growing congressional sympathies for Taiwan. If this is Lee’s intention — although Taipei continues to claim that it sees improved Sino-U.S. relations as serving its long-term interests — this would also be a serious mistake.

Washington prefers to maintain a balanced, more neutral position between Beijing and Taipei. While I firmly believe that the Clinton administration would have little option other than to assist Taipei in the event of an unprovoked assault on Taiwan by the mainland, Washington will react negatively to perceived attempts by Taiwan to force the U.S., needlessly, to take sides. Unfortunately, the lack of good, high-level communications channels between Washington and Taipei, largely at Beijing’s insistence, makes it more rather than less likely that Taiwan will pursue policies perceived both in Beijing and Washington as undermining Sino-U.S. relations.

This latest crisis increases the importance of cross-strait dialogue, even as it makes such dialogue more problematic. China has already threatened to cancel the planned fall visit to Taiwan of its senior cross-strait interlocutor, Wang Daohan, stating that Lee’s new formulation means there is now “no basis for contact, exchange and communication” between his Association for Relations across the Taiwan Straits and Taipei’s Straits Exchange Foundation, through which Wang has met with his SEF counterpart, Koo Chen-foo, as (nongovernmental) equals.

It is time for cooler heads to prevail. The U.S. has wisely attempted to stay out of this dispute, merely restating that it remains committed to “our long-standing and certainly well-known ‘one-China’ policy.”

Meanwhile, Beijing needs to avoid ruling out a Wang visit to Taipei in the fall. Unfortunately, what’s needed most from Beijing — greater flexibility vis-a-vis Taiwan — has become more unlikely, at least until the current furor dies down.

Taiwan also needs to figure out how to extract itself from the corner it has seemingly painted itself into. The first and most obvious step is to let the paint dry; i.e., to avoid adding to the impression that it is seeking to undermine cross-strait talks or Sino-U.S. relations. Nothing will cause Taiwan’s hard-earned and well-deserved support among the U.S. people and Congress to dissolve faster than to be seen as the instigator of conflict. Taiwan should assure all its friends and neighbors, as well as Beijing, that it remains committed to the long-term goal of reunification and that the basis under which it originally agreed to cross-strait talks has not, and will not, change.

The time-honored observation that “the British and Americans are two peoples divided by a common language” applies even more aptly to the Chinese living on either side of the Taiwan Strait. Neither seems capable of hearing the genuine, heart-felt concerns of the other. Taipei needs to understand and respect Beijing’s serious sovereignty concerns — concerns that would grow, not diminish, if democracy were to prevail on the mainland. Meanwhile, Beijing also needs to understand that the people on Taiwan have earned and demand more recognition of their accomplishments and that their aspirations and pride must also be taken into account.

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